Hallie Turner, the 13-year-old climate activist, Interview

Editor's Note:

Hallie Turner is a 13-year old climate activist from Raleigh, North Carolina. She jumped in the climate change pool head first, beginning at age 10. More recently she filed a complaint against the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission alleging that the state is not doing enough to protect her and her age peers from the revenges of climate change. She is part of a national effort led by the non-profit, Our Children’s Trust. Hallie has spoken at climate change rallies and organized a rally of her own which was attended by 300 people. Hallie was interviewed for this piece on December 22, 2015, by anthropologist Dr. Harvard Ayers, Executive Director of The Climate Times.

Hallie Turner:

My interest in climate change began the spring of my 3rd grade year when I was 8. I remember it was at a casual dinner table conversation. All I knew was that it was harming polar bears somehow and maybe glaciers and icecaps-- I remember wanting to learn more, and so next day, I headed to the library. I found myself super-captivated by the books I looked at.  

After reading several books, I found I was completely astonished first of all because there were all these facts and eye opening images and statistics and studies that I had discovered. But at the same time, I was confused as to why I hadn’t heard about such a big issue before. It was clearly a tremendous issue that was affecting a lot of people. Why wasn’t this front-page news?

The one book that stood out was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth that had been adapted for kids—I never saw the movie. The book was the tipping point.

I was immediately inspired by that first step of finding out all this stuff as I am an avid reader, and besides, I love science. But here I was, a frustrated 8 year old—what could I do? So, I spent a lot of time on the internet and thinking, why can’t I physically do something?

Fortunately, it wasn’t long before through countless Google searches I found a website called iMatter.  iMatter seemed like such a great opportunity because it felt like the one way that I could really make my voice heard and stop feeling helpless.

Basically it’s a microphone for youth, a way for those who are all passionate about climate change to make our voices heard. And it’s been a tremendously valuable resource for me to connect to other people that feel the same way.

I connected with Valerie first, and it turned out that she lives in Virginia near where my grandparents lived. We went up there and talked with her after I had been writing like little speeches or blog posts for the website. Beginning there, the momentum picked up. And iMatter became like my outlet.  I wrote blog posts and little speech type things.  Shortly after, at the age of 11, I had my first major public speech at your Climate Convergence on Raleigh. That was a really great way to get involved in a public setting. 

I think back to that Climate Convergence speech and I have to tell you, I connected with my drama teacher, Miss Kelly—“Do you have any tips about public speaking?” She gave me some pointers, for which I was very thankful. Other than that, I was excited about this new opportunity. So I was nervous, but I was ready for new things to happen and so I didn’t really let that get in the way of things!

When I spoke in public after that, my confidence level definitely increased-- the more I’ve talked to people it’s been a really great experience, and I am into acting at school. So, that skill has definitely been very helpful to have from drama in this the climate activism world, and then also to take from the climate activism and use that in drama. After that, it was more small local speeches, events, gatherings, while still sending things that I would write to iMatter.

It’s been really great connecting with other youth around the country and around the world who feel the same.  And eventually, I think it was Valerie or Victoria, reached out to me and said, “Hallie, I know you are aware of all of these iMatter marches that have been organized across the entire world. Would you like to lead one in Raleigh?  And that idea was just, wow!  That was something I had thought of but never done before, and I said, “Sure, I would love to.” The march was planned for September 28, 2013.

After setting the date, we started in June with our first meeting with actual people. That’s when it hit me. “Hey we are organizing thi-- this is going to be a real event that I helped organize.” We connected with some people that my mom knew from work and other people just through various different circles locally. We had several meetings from June until the march. Three of the groups we worked with were the League of Conservation Voters, the local Sierra Club, and 350.org.

Something is really important that I need to mention-- my parents both have been really supportive.  From the very beginning it was the dinner table conversation, and they encouraged me to find out more. It was something I was obviously interested in, and they’ve been incredibly helpful and supportive and wonderful throughout the whole process.

The march was fantastic. There were a little over 300 people who actually showed up. We had music and people from the Scrap Exchange. There were crafts for kids and one woman brought cherry tree saplings and crape myrtles to sell-- we got one of the crape myrtles, and it is still in our front yard. It was really great having a network of amazing, helpful people. Finally, we did a march around the old capital building.

One thing I was a little unhappy with was that the teachers from my school were not allowed to take part in the planning. It’s always been a separate thing from school, because it would definitely be like having the whole community at school and that would be really cool, but unfortunately, there are certain things they can’t talk about.  If it’s related to climate change, it’s a politically charged issue, so unfortunately they are not allowed to participate.

So, the march was a tremendous learning experience and further, after that I had more speaking opportunities and more connections with other people.  It kind of got my momentum going, including a meeting that I had with Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane.

Something else that I have been a little disappointed in was a proposed national climate summit that people could participate in locally. I made the connection with that through iMatter. It was like, “go meet with your mayor and go discuss this.” Unfortunately that whole plan with the summit never actually came to fruition, nothing actually happened. But it was still really nice to meet with the mayor, and she was supportive.

During my planning for the march, several of my iMatter friends who had been involved in planning marches locally, had also gotten involved in a national lawsuit that was brought at the individual state level.  The suit was intended to hold their state accountable for protecting the atmosphere as part of the public trust.  I found myself really interested in this. But, when I checked into it, I found out that even if I was willing to be a plaintiff in this proposed idea of a lawsuit that there weren’t any lawyers locally that were willing to take part in it.

But after the march, I heard from Our Children’s Trust, a non-profit organization that has been working with iMatter members and other youth plaintiffs. Through Our Children’s Trust youths get involved in lawsuits. Their whole premise of this suit is based on the idea of the Public Trust Doctrine. It basically is saying to our government that citizens, in this case in North Carolina, have the right to a clean atmosphere, clean water, and clean environment as part of the public trust, and it is your responsibility as our leaders to protect us. So, in essence, Our Children’s Trust is an organization that helps facilitate the action of youth in the individual states to hold their state leaders accountable by saying, “Hey you need to protect our atmosphere for us, this is our right to have a clean atmosphere and we don’t feel like you’re doing enough to protect us and future generations.” 

As things worked out through Our Children’s Trust, we got connected with Gayle Tuch, private attorney from Winston-Salem, and Ryke Longest and Shannon Arata of Duke University Environmental Law Clinic, and they decided to represent me in this endeavor. This was for me really exciting-- there was a real possibility I could be involved in a lawsuit here. But then again, that was such a foreign idea that was just kind of scary to imagine.  I was enthusiastic, but it would involve a lot of legal process and a lot of waiting and a lot of we’re not really sure what is going to happen next…. It could go this way, it could go this way, we don’t know. Anyhow, we met at The Village Deli, and then later we hung out with them several times, and it was kind of… hurry up and wait, we don’t really know what is happening.

But then they found that previously there was another similar North Carolina lawsuit, and a petition had been filed and denied. They were looking through some of that that had already happened, seeing, ok, where did they do wrong, what can we learn from this and use it for a new petition? I remember they had made contacts with attorney Mary Wood in Oregon (the attorney whose brain-child this was), as well as the people at Our Children’s Trust and that’s how they did their early evaluation of it. Then last December, 2014, the first draft of our petition was filed with the Environmental Management Commission. That was the first hurdle, and it wasn’t long till that was denied when Benne Hutson the chair of the EMC, said this petition was not complete.  

The next step was the lawsuit that was presented in NC Superior Court in November of this year. We claimed that Benne Hutson didn’t have the right to make that decision the way that he did, and that it was not part of his job description. We alleged that he was biased in his decision, because he had close connections with Duke Energy.  

Personally for me, it was definitely a balance between feeling like, “Oh I’m the story on the youth connection, I’m the voice of this issue” and the legal aspects of the case. It was definitely overwhelming at first, but the legal team has been really great with paraphrasing all of the legal language and making it more understandable. By making it easier to process, they have just been incredibly helpful and supportive throughout the entire process. I was definitely involved in the process. All I know is we met a lot of times, mostly on the phone, but several times at Duke University.

With all the contingencies it was stressful, because it felt like it was really finally here, because this has been going on for 2 years, and before, it was always in the future that things would magically come together.

So, the judge could be on board with holding North Carolina accountable for keeping the atmosphere clean, but he did also have to do his job to do… But, again, I knew I wasn’t going to have a chance to speak, but I prepared anyway-- there may be reporters.

Finally at the hearing! It was actually pretty straight forward. There were other cases before us, then it was Ryke, Shannon, Gayle and me. And there were two attorneys from the DEQ-- all those acronyms-- Department of Environmental Quality, on behalf of the state.

I was nervous obviously—but I knew there wasn’t a chance for me to make my voice heard personally. Ah, so it was nerve wracking. But, the legal team had done a great job of preparing me on all this. And then, there was a lot of legal back and forth between my legal team and the DEQ legal team. Some of it went over my head, some of it I understood. It was like, “this mumbo jumbo means this.”  

It lasted, maybe two hours. You had to sit and keep your back straight, and you had to be completely focused.  And because I couldn’t say anything with words, I had to have all this certain body language and represent my voice, like the youth voice of the movement, but without saying anything.

And then there were so many reporters, there must have been a half a dozen, I don’t know. There they were. So at first I was wondering, “Hey are they here for these other cases that are before us?” But then all of them stayed, and I knew they were there for us.

Through all this, I was very appreciative that my family was there for me, my grandparents came and surprised me from Virginia. And then my teacher from when I was in kindergarten came, so that was really sweet. And then there were other local people that were simply supporters.

About the judge, he amazed me how focused and on top of every single little thing he had to be, because just to imagine doing that every day like as your job was kind of overwhelming to think about. There were two or three cases before us? There’s so much you have to do to be able to handle all that. He was funny because, he said like “alright I’m looking at you equally then I’m going to look at you equally, then I’m looking down here, so I’m not giving anything away, like I’m looking at you more, because like every little like body language, it can be interpreted different ways, so don’t think I am favoring one side or the other.”

But then afterwards, he did say, “I appreciate, regardless of the outcome of this hearing, and I haven’t decided yet, I do admire that, the fact that you are fighting for something you believe in, and I do appreciate all the work that you put into this effort. You fought hard for a cause that you believe in.” That statement was validation of my effort, and that was sooo nice. Finally, he said that he would get back to us with his ruling by Thanksgiving-- about two weeks.

And then, he got back to us. There was a lot of legal stuff that’s hard to understand, but basically he said he ruled in favor of the DEQ and thus the EMC. He said that it didn’t matter what his personal beliefs were, but that was his ruling.

In terms of what happens next, from the best I can understand, it’s a pretty legal or technical decision whether we appeal. It’s a lot of legal, nitty-gritty decisions and it’s still up in the air.